AMC brought the casts and crews of "Hell on Wheels" and new series "Low Winter Sun" to the TCA press tour, but the real focus was, as president and general manager of the network Charlie Collier put it, "the bittersweet occasion that is the last eight episodes of 'Breaking Bad.'"
And they were all present -- creator/showrunner Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte and Bob Odenkirk. Dean Norris was, unfortunately not present, but Gilligan called him out when asked about which of the characters ended up revealing the most layers and changing from his original conception.
"He was a bit of a mechanical construct in that first episode," Gilligan explained, but "just by knowing [Norris] enriched my ability to write him." "TV is this great organic living thing -- that's what I love to much about it," he continued, saying that when you can trust and react to the people you work with in front of and behind the camera, "wonderful things derive from that."
Now that the series is approaching its end, with the final eight-episode arc kicking off August 11, Gilligan admitted that "I can't imagine exactly what my original intention was for [Walter White's] ending... I couldn't see that far ahead, couldn't see the forest for the trees." In terms of the famous "from Mr. Chips into Scarface" line he pitched the series with, Gilligan wonders if the transformation was one in which Walt really changed, if his "particular road to hell changed him or revealed things that were already within him." As the show went on, he said, he started to subscribe to the latter."
Addressing why Jesse tends to get more sympathy than Skyler in being complicit in Walt's drug business, Paul noted that "Jesse is obviously a drug dealer and a murderer, but for some reason you really care for him. You want to protect him. With Skyler, I feel for her so much -- she just wants to protect her family -- but I think the audience is really rooting for the bad guy, so Skyler ends up being a bad guy to the audience." Gunn agreed, saying that she, Gilligan and the writers had talked about the negative reaction to the character because they "were confused by it."
Gunn continued, "My feeling about it was because people got so behind Walt and the reasons for him doing all these things that they really sided for him -- 'What if I were in this position?' There seemed to me to be a sense of putting their frustrations and their feelings of dreams deferred into the character of Walt, and the person who stood in the way of Walt consistently was Skyler. She was the one who most consistently said you can't just do these things and not have consequences."
In terms of how they're going into the season, Paul described Jesse as "just emptied out" -- "he wants out of the business, he wants to stay as far away from Walt as possible." Cranston joked that "Walt has a large reservoir of good to be shared with everyone else and he spreads his joy liberally," with other cast members mentioning musical numbers while he claimed that things with end when they "hug it out." "I really believe people are capable of good and bad," he added, more seriously, pointing out that issues of DNA, parenting and other outside influences can help shape whether the best or worst of us comes out.
Gilligan confessed to not reading the huge amount of internet coverage of the series out of a "neurotic sense of self protection" -- "it would be a rabbit hole I would disappear down." In general, he said, "I hope I am not wildly wrong in my estimate that most folks are going to dig the ending."
In other bits and pieces, Cranston said that he and Paul read the last script together a week before they started shooting the episode, something that will be documented in a two-hour documentary about the series intended for the box set release. And Gilligan noted that "It is my fervent wish that there will be a Saul Goodman spin-off. I'm not speaking for any company or professional entity when I say I really hope it happens. It's for powers bigger than me to figure out if it can come to fruition. Creatively, we're working toward that." "I'd love to do it -- I'd do it in a second, because if Vince wrote it it's going to be awesome," added Odenkirk. "The spin-off for me is just having been on this show. Everything good that's already come from me being a part of this is all I'll ever need."
Asked about whether the actors had come up with any backstory for their characters over the years, Odenkirk said he always imagined Saul was from Chicago, where Odenkirk is from ("I think they perceive everybody west of Chicago as being easy to manipulate"). Mitte pulled from his own experiences with dealing with cerebral palsy -- "everything I went through with casting and binding and leg immobilizers, that was a big basis for Walt Jr. " Brandt imagined that Marie and Hank had always wanted kids but couldn't have them -- "I think about that every time I have a scene with Walt and Skyler's kids."
Gunn said that she and Brandt would always talk about what Marie and Skyler's parents must have been like. "We always felt that these two did not have a happy childhood," which led to them feeling like "war buddies -- they had to stick together no matter what." Paul noted Jesse's seeking of a father figure -- "that comes with him wanting to protect kids in a way. He has this fondness for children. He didn't feel he had that protection from his parents." And Cranston claimed Walt's turning point moment was July 4, 1978, when he entered the Nathan's hot dog eating contest, consumed 38.5 hot dogs and seriously considered joining the professional eating circuit instead of becoming a chemist.